The Selma City Council may change how smoke shops are allowed to promote their products. While that may come as a relief to those concerned about underage smoking, owners of such businesses wonder if a double standard is being applied to their stores.

The overriding concern is whether the banners, flags and posters are targeting youth to use products known to cause numerous health problems. The council isn’t shutting down the four smoke shops already operating in town, but it is putting a halt to any new smoke shops opening up.

“These places are conspicuous. They’re loud and proud about what they’re selling and they’re advertising it aggressively,” said City attorney Neil Costanzo during the March 2 City Council meeting.

The Council unanimously approved a 45-day urgency ordinance to give legal counsel time to look into how the city regulates such shops and how the shops advertise.

City Manager Ken Grey said he noticed one shop’s advertisements that particularly concerned him.

“(The ads) are highly suggestive, not only in terms of a sexual connotation, but in terms of advertising cannabis. Our ordinance isn’t tight enough to give us adequate control. Children and families are coming to do business and the smoke shop is driving everybody away. They don’t want to be around that kind of an atmosphere.”

Other concerns listed in the ruling were the close proximity of the shops to sensitive-use areas such as neighborhoods, churches, schools, parks, arcades and areas where minors tend to congregate. “The existence of these uses tends to attract minors to use of such products which are recognized to be harmful to their health,” the ruling reads.

The council is also concerned that shops are targets for theft and vandalism, are found to be affiliated with the sale of drug paraphernalia and are sources of second-hand smoke. There is also a question regarding the long-term health impact of e-cigarettes.

The moratorium will be followed by a public hearing where the council has the option of extending it another 10 months and 15 days to continue researching laws related to the matter.

Mayor Scott Robertson said that Grey and Costanzo will need to consider what the businesses are selling and how they’re doing so.

“We should look at both to see which area affords the most latitude in terms of what we can proscribe without restraining trade.”

Smoke shop owners, however, say they already take steps to keep minors out of their stores and say the focus should be on targeting illegal drug activity.

“Are they going to take all the liquor out of the restaurants and grocery stores, too?” said Ray Aragon. He owns Audio Concepts right next door to the Shine Smoke Shop on Thompson Avenue. Aragon said he was hoping to take over the store from the current owner. “If they’re not going to allow smoke shops, they shouldn’t allow liquor stores, but somebody’s making money off of that.”

City officials say the ordinance only temporarily stops any new smoke shops from setting up shop.

“It’s kind of a difficult call as to how far you can go because tobacco is after all, a legal product. You can’t forbid someone from selling it. But you can certainly regulate the manner in which they’re selling it,” Costanzo said.

Tejinder Singh operates two Cigarette Outlets in town and says that only legal tobacco, vapor and e-cigarette products are sold in his shops. While he understands a concern for minor’s health, he stresses that minors are not allowed in his shops.

“We don’t want to be doing business with minors.”

At a strip mall where one of Singh’s shops are located on Whitson Street, a grocery store, shoe store, men’s and women’s clothing store, family dentist and a pizzeria are nearby. Singh said he’s never received a complaint from neighboring businesses.

“I’ve owned this shop for 10 and a half years and the one by Food 4 Less for five years. I’ve never had a problem. (The city) needs to control those selling illegal things.”

The ruling does not affect grocery or convenience stores or gas stations where cigarettes, cigars or e-cigarette or vapor devices are sold “so long as the sales of those products are incidental to the primary purpose of the establishment,” the ordinance reads. A business is considered a smoke shop “if, and only if, 15 percent or more of the store display or shelf space is devoted to the keeping or advertisement of such products.”

While the shops in town sell other merchandise such as clothing, sunglasses and soft drinks, the majority of the items for sale include glass hookahs, e-cigarettes, e-liquids, cigars and cigarettes.

Smoke shops already operating in town are required to have a conditional-use permit and must be located in a commercial zone away from schools, Costanzo said.

“Our ordinance has not really worked out the way it was intended,” Costanzo said. “We think we can find a way to regulate these consistently with their First Amendment right to do this sort of thing.”

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